Archives For Preaching

I love Charles Haddon Spurgeon. I named my middle son after him. One of his sermon manuscripts marked by his own hand hangs in my office. I count him among the greatest, if not the greatest of English-speaking preachers to have ever lived. Needless to say, I’m a fanboy.

Yet I always find it ironic when seminaries and other Christian groups that host events, seminars, or training dedicated to expository preaching defined only as proceeding verse-by-verse through sections of Scripture1 also pay homage to the pulpit ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a man who to my knowledge didn’t preach expositional sermons as they’ve delineated it.2

Often, Spurgeon’s sermons would open with one verse as a reference text and after some initial addressing of said text, he’d be off to the races with stories, points, and appeals, rarely returning to the initial verse. When it comes to how we think about preaching styles in modern terminology, Spurgeon leans more toward topical than expository-as-defined.3

Heresy? Not really. Sample Spurgeon’s sermons for yourself. I’d argue evangelicals do with Spurgeon like they do with many great leaders of the faith (Augustine, Luther, etc.): quote easily, read rarely. But the fact that Spurgeon was more topical than expository is hard to miss if you actually read his sermons. I’m not alone. Indeed, Phil Johnson, founder of The Spurgeon Archive, sees the exact same thing:

It’s true that Spurgeon was not an expository preacher. In fact, he regarded biblical exposition as something distinct from “preaching.” His approach to “exposition” was simply to read a phrase and comment on it. Some of his printed sermons include an “Exposition” section, but the “exposition” was a whole different part of the worship service, distinct from the preaching.

This doesn’t mean Spurgeon misapplied texts or took them out of context.4 His sermon’s bled Scripture when cut and took aim at the glory of Jesus. Even so, that doesn’t take away the fact that his style wasn’t given to preaching through a book of the Bible or working through large sections of Scripture in a verse-by-verse manner that many preaching leaders today would promote.5 Johnson thankfully adds, “Normally, [Spurgeon] at least took time to explain both the context and the meaning of his text, even if he then departed from the text and its context into a more topical kind of message.” So while this keeps us fanboys from tearing our Spurgeon t-shirts and smashing our Spurgeon pint glasses in grief, the truth still remains. Yea verily it has been said unto you, from the guy who founded The Spurgeon Archive, that the Prince of Preachers was a topical preacher.

Say it with me, “Spurgeon was a topical preacher.” You can do it.

The point of all this isn’t to say expository preaching, or what I believe is more clearly defined as verse-by-verse preaching, isn’t good.6 It is very much so. In fact, I just preached through Romans 9:1-27 this past Sunday. There are some things verse-by-verse and Bible book preaching does that topical cannot do. Yet, that shouldn’t move us to short-change or vilify topical preaching. One must still exposit the texts correctly – giving them the right context and interpretation – no matter how many are used in any given message.7 Topical preaching also does things verse-by-verse or Bible book preaching can’t do. That’s why my own preaching strategy employs both: sermons through Bible books (or big sections within them) and topical messages.

And why not? I consider both expository. So for using the former, I’ve got tons of wonderful Christian leaders today cheering me on. For the latter, well…I’ve got Spurgeon. 😉

 

I recently finished Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic book Preaching & Preachers. There is no lack of talking points for the good Doctor. He is dogmatic, opinionated, and assertive about what he believes preaching to be. I found myself convicted, confirmed, and even bemused to the point of laughing out loud. The book was rich for me in all kinds of ways. For example, one interesting thing was how MLJ regarded altar calls in church services.

I grew up in a church tradition where altar calls were standard practice. And while I’ve preached many a sermon that included an altar call, for years now my church (and my preaching in it) doesn’t have them. Some believe this absence to be, at best, pastorally unwise or, at worst, incredibly unbiblical. 1 I thought it might be good to hear at least from one respected, if not hallowed, preacher on the reasons he didn’t employ them in the preaching event.

#1: It is wrong to put direct pressure on the will.
#2: The response of the man who “comes forward” isn’t so much the Truth itself as, perhaps, the personality of the evangelist, or fear, or some other kinds of psychological influence.
#3: The preaching of the Word and the call for decision shouldn’t be separated.
#4: The implication that sinners have an inherent power of decision and self-conversion.
#5: The implication that the evangelist is in a position to manipulate the Holy Spirit and His work.
#6: It tends to produce a superficial conviction of sin.
#7: You are encouraging people to think that their act of going forward somehow saves them.
#8: The implication that the Holy Spirit needs to be helped, aided, and supplemented – that the work must be hastened instead of leaving it the hands of the Spirit
#9: It raises the whole question of the doctrine of Regeneration.
#10: No sinner ever really “decides for Christ”; he flies to Christ in utter helplessness and despair as his only refuge and hope.

What is MLJ’s counsel to do en lieu of altar calls? The Doctor concludes:

The appeal must be in the Truth itself, and in the message. As you preach your sermon you should be applying it all the time, and especially, of course, at the end, when you come to the final application and to the climax. But the appeal is part of the message; it should be so inevitably. The sermon should lead men to see that this is the only thing to do. … I believe that the minister should always make an announcement in some shape or form that he is available to talk to anybody who wants to talk to him about their soul and its eternal destiny. 2

What Lloyd-Jones wants to make clear is that one doesn’t confuse not having an altar call with not having a call to respond at all. For him, the call to respond is peppered throughout the sermon. The issue at hand for the Doctor is the technique or instrument which employs altar calls for conversions. If you’d like to know more, I highly encourage you to pick up a copy to see his argumentation behind these ten reasons. If anything, it will be good food for thought for your own practices in preaching.

Notes:

  1. However, one would be taxed to produce an explicit example in the New Testament of a church service altar call. Maybe because it’s a fairly modern invention (See Charles Finney’s 19th century “anxious bench” technique).
  2. Preaching & Preachers, Zondervan, 2011, 296.

Recast : to melt something down and reshape it into another form;
to present something in a different way.

Let me give you one simple way to increase the effectiveness of your sermon. It has to do with recasting or presenting your sermon’s main point 1in a fashion that may not be intuitive for some. What do I mean? Often, because of training as preachers and expositors of the Scriptures, many a pastor constructs a main point that’s perfectly true to the text and immensely clear for the listener. For example, this week one of our campus pastors, after working through the parable of the Lost Son in Luke 15, constructed the main point of his message as follows:

Jesus came to seek and save the lost.

It’s good. It’s true. But I challenged him to recast it. Why? Because this is a main truth for the head, and it needs to be something more. I told him it needed “truth with some skin on it” – something you could relate to, feel, connect with. Listeners need truths presented in a way that speaks not only to their heads but their hearts as well. That’s why an effective preacher will ask himself if his message’s main point can be recast from a Main Truth for the Head into a Main Truth for the Heart? This isn’t an appeal for emotionalism or guilt-trip gimmicks, but an earnest rephrasing of a truth in order that congregants might better connect with both the intellectual and emotional reality of that truth.

But that can be hard to do. So, I asked my fellow pastor, “What is the emotional center of your message? What moves you about what your read in Luke 15? What stirs you in your gut about Jesus’ appeal to his listeners?” Without hesitation he responded, “Yancey, it’s that he’s there and he’s waiting.” That was it! He had just recast his main point and didn’t even realize it. Can you see feel the difference?

Jesus came to seek and save the lost.   vs   He’s there and he’s waiting!

The recast point has skin on it. It appeals to the heart. It’s something listeners can lean in to and feel for themselves. This is value and power behind recasting. It wraps our hearts into the main point by giving hooks to hang our emotions on instead of solely being in the head. In other words (and to channel my inner Jonathan Edwards), recasting hits after the affections and, as such, makes for a better message.

Try it. Ask yourself this week if your message’s main point needs recasting in order to hit both head and heart.

Notes:

  1. Yes, I generally favor one-point messages